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Taco Thursday

July 23, 2007

Taco Thursdsay

I have been experiencing a bit of the old writer’s block lately. Hence, it’s taken me three days to write about Taco Thursday, and I still don’t really know what what to say other than “We made tacos! Hurray!”

I’d been planning tacos for weeks–I wanted to make them just the way my dad did when I was growing up. Taco dinners were a special treat, and because they’re also a pain in the arse, dad didn’t make tacos too often. There’s a lot of oil involved, and standing over the stove, not to mention chopping of vegetables and doing all the dishes when you’re done. But it is so, so worth it. This being the first time I made tacos myself I was a little unsure about the tortilla frying, but after the first two chewy mishaps, I finally perfected the technique and managed to pull off some crispy, delicious shells to hold all kinds of yummy food stuffs. Just like dad used to make.

The only thing I did differently was skip the packet of taco seasoning for the meat, and I’m kind of thinking I should have just gone ahead and used it. My makeshift seasoning turned out fine, but it wasn’t quite the same. It had a different kick to it, and there was something missing, something I just can’t put my finger on. Further experimentation is in order.

Putting together all the components for a proper taco dinner is serious business. Of course, when I was a kid I was so damn picky that I refused to put anything but beans in my tacos. My parents used to call me the refried bean queen, and I could really put those things back. But all that other vegetable stuff was left off my plate. What are the key taco ingredients? First, you have a foundational layer of refried beans. Then a bit of seasoned ground beef, topped with lettuce, chopped tomatoes, chopped onions, grated cheese, and a just a little guacamole. Or, if you’re Crystal, a lot of quacamole. I forgot the lettuce, and there was a little something missing, a certain fresh crunch that should have been there, but wasn’t. Next time, next time.

The only relatively difficult part of this whole shebang is frying the tortilla shells. I vaguely recall that my dad had a special metal tong folder fryer type thing, that held the tortilla in that perfect shell shape and let you hold it in the hot oil until it cooked up nice and crispy. I just had regular tongs, and it took me awhile to figure out how to shape them, but I think I figured it out eventually.

Making the shells

Heat about two cups of canola or corn oil in a deep skillet or stock pot. If you don’t have a thermometer to test the heat of the oil, which I don’t, just throw little bits of tortilla into the oil and wait for them to sizzle. Then, one at a time, add tortillas to the oil. Let each one cook flat for a minute or so, then use the tongs to shape and hold the tortilla into a taco shape in the oil, cooking each one for about three or four minutes, or until it’s crispy and hard. They’ll crisp up a bit more when they’re resting on paper towels. Pay attention to the oil and the heat–you might need to pause occasionally to let the oil heat up again after the tortillas cool it off. You can also leave some of them flat, tostada style. For some odd reason, I preferred tostadas when I was a kid.

The meat is easy: Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add about a pound of ground beef for four people–and don’t use meat that’s too lean. The fat from the meat should be able to cook the onions, too. Let the meat cook for a bit to release some liquid, then add about half a cup of chopped onions, and small handfuls (probably about 1-2 T. each) of cumin, cayenne, chili powder, and garlic powder, along with some salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the meat is no longer pink, and then set it aside, covered, until you’re ready to eat.

The beans could be even easier, if you buy canned refried beans, but it’s also pretty easy to make your own. You can mash up a can of pinto beans with some vegetable oil (or lard, if you’re hard core like that) in a skillet, and let them cook until they’re a bit dry and they start to stick to the bottom of the pan. Then set them aside with the meat while you make tortilla shells.

Shells

This is my favorite way to eat tacos, and sadly one that I see pretty much nowhere except my parents’ house. I’ve heard tell you can find tacos made this way in Texas, but having never been out that way myself, I wouldn’t know. I have no idea where my dad learned to eat tacos this way, but it was certainly a fan favorite, and everyone I served them to Thursday night agreed: They are pretty awesome.

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